Time to Stop Seabed Mining
Mining for copper, zinc and gold in ocean waters, using robots that create toxic plumes, will not only trash the seabed, but the mining industry’s already borderline reputation
Whether you live in New York, London or Sydney, the tuna in the salad they serve at your favourite restaurant probably comes from Papua New Guinea, where fishing boats will soon watch a large new vessel loom into view.
Earlier this month, a Chinese shipbuilder launched a boat capable of carrying 200 staff and 39,000 tonnes of ore, which is being delivered to Nautilus Minerals, a Brisbane-based company that will use it as a mothership for mining in the Pacific Ocean. Remote-controlled robots, bigger than bulldozers and heavier than a blue whale, will crawl over the seabed, breaking it up, crushing the rock and sending it to surface as slurry. Waste water is then pumped back into the ocean.
The idea of deep sea mining has made accelerating progress ever since the International Seabed Authority, part of the UN, started handing out mining claims in 2001. Over a million square kilometres have been given to boats from 16 different countries, including Japan, Russia and Norway, which can be watched tacking to and fro in the most sensitive parts of the ocean on Deep Sea Mining Watch, a website that follows surveying vessels by satellite.
The prize is several trillion dollars of copper, zinc, silver and gold, which can be found in the hydrothermal vents that form where tectonic plates move apart. The downside is devastation to a pristine aquatic environment.
Proponents say the ecological impact will be minimal, and that the jump to under-water mining is inevitable, because
land-based resources are running out. Both claims are plainly wrong.
Mines are not like a glass of orange juice that can be drunk to the bottom. Several of the world's largest copper mines, from Morenci in the US to Cerro Verde in Peru, have been open for well over a century. Over that time, despite continuous extraction, they have seen their resource bases flatline or grow, as technological breakthroughs, plus rising prices and ever-greater scale, continually turn what was once waste rock into viable ore.
Hydrothermal vents meanwhile host hundreds of unique species (plus untold others that are yet to be discovered). Grinding them up destroys an untouched habitat and releases metal toxins that spread out in huge plumes, poisoning the water and smothering sea-life. Tests by a UK boat off the Canary Islands suggest that even in favourable conditions, the plumes travel at least a kilometre from any robots at work. In reality, ocean currents can carry them “hundreds of kilometres”, according to a study led by the EU.
Subsea mining will not only trash the seabed, but the mining industry's (already borderline) reputation. Companies have invested decades learning how to contain their footprint on land. Yet the novelty of subsea mining has allowed a small number of players to push forward an idea that is guaranteed to attract damaging, worldwide coverage.
Bigwigs who shepherd the industry, working to improve its relationship with society, ought to take a position and push for a blanket ban on mining underwater.
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